New publication: Reef Reminiscences; Ratcheting back the shifted baselines concerning what reefs used to be

On the occasion of the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium, held from 9 to 13 July 2012, in Cairns Australia, the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment & Health (UNU-INWEH) is releasing a colourful 35 page brochure containing a series of reminiscences by the older generation of coral reef scientists, about particular times and places. The brochure can be downloaded as PDF at:

The brochure, titled: Reef Reminiscences: Ratcheting back the shifted baselines concerning what reefs used to be, was spearheaded by Dr. Peter F. Sale and Dr. Alina M. Szmant (both considered old timers) and evolved out of the realization that the great majority of reef scientists now engaged in trying to pin down just how reefs are changing and identify the major reef stressors, are young enough that their baselines were set very recently. Human effects have been so profound on some reefs that it is difficult to even imagine how they used to look. Too few people who now study reefs witnessed what coral reefs used to be like decades ago.

“Shifting baselines” refers to the incremental lowering of standards, with respect to nature, in which each new generation: lacks knowledge of how the environment used to be, redefines what is “natural” according to personal experience, and sets the stage for the next generation’s shifting baseline (1). The habit of building baselines anew each generation would serve us well if we lived in a world which changed only on the short term, but it risks us failing to notice long-term changes.

A degraded and empty reef can look great to someone who is unaware of how much better it used to look. Without the ‘old-timers’ knowledge, it’s easy for each new generation to accept baselines that have shifted and make peace with empty reefs. This is why it’s so important to document how things used to be. Not to depress people, but to remind them of what is possible, and keep them from settling for a degraded world.

In its short lifespan, coral reef science has changed in many ways: in the kinds of questions being asked, in the approaches used to answer them, in the technologies available, and in the accessibility of reefs for scientists.. These changes in the science get forgotten, much as do changes in the reefs, because we quickly adapt (shift our baselines) as we adopt new technologies. The 13 contributors to this brochure were all pioneers in coral reef science. Their engaging stories capture the flavor of reef science in the 1960s and 70s, and reflect on what the reefs within which they played were like a few decades ago. And it’s not all bad news; there are some hopeful signs and all our contributors believe strongly that saving coral reefs is worthwhile, for us as well as for reef organisms.

In releasing these stories, UNU-INWEH invites others to contribute their own stories for what could become the collective memory of coral reef science. We invite you to submit your stories on our soon to be launched blog site

1. Randy Olson, Shifting Baselines: Slow-Motion Disaster in the Sea. November 17, 2002. The Los Angeles Times.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard